Culinary lore has it that one of the most-loved street foods in north India owes its origin to the prescriptions of Shah Jahan’s physicians. When the Mughal Emperor decided to build a city named after himself — goes an account recently made popular by the Netflix series Raja, Rasoi Aur Anya Kahaniyaan — his court hakims surmised that Yamuna’s water was not potable. Shahjahanabad’s residents were asked to lavish their diet with ghee and spices as a panacea. A snack that combined the sourness of curd, the tang of aamchur, the sharpness and mild bitterness of jeera, and the crunch of sprouts, chickpeas, wheat crisps and lentil patties was the vegetarian response to this exigency. Thus was born the chaat.
Like most accounts that fix origins of food items, the one describing the birth of the snack has rival versions. One traces the chaat’s ancestry to a bout of illness during which the emperor was asked to eat food rich in spices, but light on the stomach. Other narratives hold that the snack — literally meaning “to lick” — was invented in Lucknow. Yet others ascribe the combination of salty, sweet and spicy — chatpata — flavour to the country’s western parts.
Tales about the birth of culinary items are akin to the narratives about the origin of communities and social groups. Boundaries between myth and fact are fluid. In recent times, the endeavour to trace culinary ancestry has something to do with the craving for authenticity. Look through food blogs, restaurant reviews or menus of eateries, it won’t take much time before you come across the word, “authentic”. The website of a popular Bengali eatery in Delhi, for example, notes that its USP is to “recreate all those forgotten delicacies”.
Isn’t this also about a quest for food that does more than nourish, but also reflects an entire culture and history in a dish? For, as is on the Bengali eatery’s website, “We hope that all families nostalgic about muri ghonto and bhapas, tel koi, daab chingri, mangshor jhol and all those by-gotten dishes would love to come and have these delicacies and leave with a sense of fulfillment.”
The project has also spawned seriously creative endeavours — from rummaging family keepsakes in order to dig out recipes to tracing the histories of communities through food.
But authenticity could be a double-edged term. Our yearning for unadulterated culinary traditions often blinkers us to both the circumstances and creativity in individual kitchens. As food historian Monica Porales notes in a 2016 Journal of American History article, “The Food Historian’s Dilemma: Reconsidering the Role of Authenticity in Food Scholarship”, the stories we tell about food have much to do with how we see ourselves and the worlds we inhabit. When applied to other ethnicities, the quest for culinary timelessness is a convenient shorthand for gastronomical exotica.
Eateries have been participants in this process. Delhi’s chaat has travelled continents. But, in the city, it wouldn’t be unusual to find stalls announcing their fealty to the “real thing” — Purani Dilli ka mashhoor chaat (The famed chaat of Old Delhi) is the calling card of many a seller. And in the Walled City, once called Shahjahanabad, chefs at eateries take much pride in proclaiming their spice mixes and sauces to have withstood the ravages of time.
Unquestionably, traditions have a big say in the ways we cook. But culinary styles also benefit from spontaneity. Nothing pays a better tribute to this facet of individual dexterity than the well-known kitchen phrase: haath ka khana (the culinary brilliance of individual hands). The Mughal chefs were experts at this magic. The fact that the chutney at one chaat outlet is chatpata while a dressing of ginger juliennes and pomegranate seeds that combine to create a sweet-sharp feel at another eatery may have to do with adherence to family recipes. But by all accounts, potatoes, the chaat staple, did not become commonplace in Indian cooking until the late 18th century.
And one of Delhi’s best-known gastronomical delights that many restaurants slot under “Mughlai cuisine” today came into being less than 60 years ago when a Partition refugee, Kundan Lal Gujral, wanted to avoid wasting the unsold chicken tikkas at his Daryaganj takeaway. He decided to soften them in a thick creamy-tomato gravy. But the stroke of genius lay in getting the tricky combination of tandoor-smoked chicken, tart tomatoes and rich dairy textures right. Thus was born the butter chicken.
Haath ka khaana such as this cannot be explained when we keep food in a time warp.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘The Birth of the Chaat’.